Benjamin Lang recognizes the irony.
The Bellevue High School junior says when he questioned the validity of his speech and debate club’s vice-presidential election last school year, the school punished him by barring him from participating in a national debate competition. The school that taught him to stand up and use his voice, he says, tried to quash it.
Bellevue High officials, however, say Lang disrupted his classmates’ education. He asked students to reveal confidential information, in some cases making some feel coerced into saying they had voted for him after the election.
What started with an informal club-officer election — where students cast ballots on folded slips of paper dropped in a bucket — has now landed in federal court. Lang, 16, and his parents, Bin Lang and Ziyi Zhou, filed a lawsuit against the Bellevue School District, alleging that the school’s punishment is in violation of the teen’s First Amendment rights.
“Speech in school matters, even in something as small as questioning the integrity of a debate team election,” said Lara Hruska, a Seattle education lawyer who is representing the Langs. “If students are shut down for questioning in a nonadversarial context, how can we expect them to be engaged citizens in a fraught democracy?”
A spokesman said the district is unable to comment on active court cases. In letters to the family, district officials reiterated that Lang’s actions were disruptive and his punishment was appropriate.
The family declined to comment on the record, but Lang emailed a statement to The Seattle Times.
“I was especially disappointed that the school was essentially telling me to be quiet and to silence my voice for speaking up when I have questions or think something is wrong, which is extremely ironic considering the fact that throughout my entire schooling career, we have been taught to stand up and express our voice,” Lang wrote.
The case involves questions about the election’s validity, requests for a recount and allegations of election interference, all outlined in a complaint filed in King County Superior Court in August and moved earlier this month to U.S. District Court. The school district filed to remove the case to federal court because it alleges a violation of federal constitutional rights, according to court documents.
In April 2019, Lang, then a sophomore, ran for vice president of the Bellevue High School speech and debate club. He didn’t win — and doesn’t contest the results now — but at the time questioned the outcome because he thought the number of votes announced wasn’t consistent with the number of ballots cast, according to court documents. He asked to see the votes, but was refused.
He started asking his classmates via text and social media if they voted for him. The club’s adviser heard about Lang’s efforts and reported it to Assistant Principal Bret Cochrun, who barred Lang from competing at the National Speech and Debate Tournament in June 2019. Lang had hoped to be sent to the competition as an alternate.
According to a district letter, the assistant principal conducted a dozen interviews and determined Lang tried to see confidential votes and “coerce members into disclosing the contents of their confidential ballots.” One student, according to the letter, reported that some students hadn’t voted for him but said they did because they felt coerced to say they had.
Principal Vic Anderson upheld the decision to bar Lang from the national competition, as did Patty Siegwarth, Bellevue’s executive director of schools, and the district’s disciplinary appeal council.
The Langs say that the district erred in upholding the punishment, as Lang didn’t violate confidentiality and didn’t interfere with the educational environment. They’re seeking a reversal of the district’s decision to sanction Lang, and, Hruska said, an acknowledgment that “they messed up.”
“We want (Lang) to know if you challenge an injustice, it can be rectified,” she said. “That’s part of the learning opportunity. It’s a very intense civic lesson.”
Lata Nott, executive director at the Freedom Forum Institute’s First Amendment Center, called the Bellevue case unique.
Many speech cases in schools involve school-sponsored publications or issues like bullying, she added. The general rule related to schools disciplining students for speech without infringing on their rights is the Tinker standard, from the landmark 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, that defined students’ First Amendment rights. In it, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students couldn’t be censored as long as there’s no disruption.
“On the surface, it seems like he has a good case,” she said. “I’ve never heard of one quite like this.”